If ever a performance encapsulated champions it was this one. Gritty, dogged, clinical - Chelsea are cantering towards the Premier League title at a similar pace to one of Antonio Conte’s frenetic touchline bursts.
The Italian demands perfection and boy isn’t he getting it. Conte was bold in changing tactics at the start of the season and even he can now acknowledge just how influential those changes have been in giving Chelsea their title edge.
“It’s incredible what we are doing,” Conte said.
“For sure if we think back to the first part of the season, it was very difficult to put Chelsea with the teams to fight for the title.
“The start of the season wasn’t bad, but then we changed a lot and now we stay at the top of the table and deservedly so.”
There may be some hurdles left to clear but Conte’s reaction at full-time summed up the magnitude of the win.
Far from their best, the Blues have that decisive edge and, more importantly, the winning momentum that should surely carry them over the line.
Although the 47-year-old refutes the idea that the title is already theirs, he has begun to pay tribute to his squad, who’ve responded in such magnificent fashion.
“I have to say thanks to all my players.” Conte added. “They are working incredibly hard, they trust in our ideas and they are showing me in every game great will and commitment.
“They are showing the fight needed for us to win the league.”
Stoke were always going to provide a stern test. Their high-pressing game made it uncomfortable for Gary Cahill and co early on. But, under Conte, Chelsea have developed a ruthless streak few sides in Europe can match.
Willian’s quick thinking gave the Blues the perfect start. Catching Lee Grant out at his near post, the Brazilian whipped his free-kick into the Stoke net with just 13 minutes on the clock – even if it had taken Chelsea fans a second or two to realise they had in fact taken the lead.
It was the perfect nerve-settler as the league leaders grew into their stride and began picking off a down-hearted Stoke side.
But it was left to Gary Cahill to seal the most dramatic of victories. Pouncing on Erik Pieters’ mistake, the England defender slammed home the winner in front of the Chelsea fans three minutes from time.
The mentality of champions. Or as Conte puts it: “this must be Chelsea’s mentality. Don’t forget Chelsea is a great team,” the Italian continued. “We must always play to win. When you play against these sorts of teams you must fight and build on this mentality.
“We showed the will to win the game and not to come here only for a point. In the end I think we deserved to win.”
The hosts had rattled the champions-elect like few sides have managed before this season. First the linesman ruled out Bruno Martins-Indi’s header after Saido Berahino’s shove on Cesar Azpilicueta.
But they would not be denied a deserved equaliser before the break. Erik Pieter’s swinging free-kick caused carnage inside the Blues box, before Gary Cahill’s shove on Jon Walters resulted in a Stoke penalty.
The Republic of Ireland international stepped up and clinically despatched his spot-kick, high into the roof of the net to send the Bet365 Stadium into raptures.
Cahill’s late strike was greeted with the sort of celebrations only champions are used too and Conte knew just how important this victory was, with the title drawing ever closer.
“This win is really important,” he explained. “I wanted to share my joy with my players and with our fans. After a very tough game.
“We have to take 21 points to be sure to win the title. Otherwise we risk to lose it. We have to think game by game. The international break gives some players a chance to rest and then we have two games at home against Crystal Palace and Manchester City.”
Their lead at the top may be considered insurmountable to some, but any suggestions that Conte is beginning to look further than the end of this season are certainly ar-fetched. His focus is now and that is evident in the way he sets his stall out and challenges his players to play to their maximum.
“This is the first season for me here and we must improve,” Conte insisted. “The players are understanding my ideas of football and for sure we are aiming for something important but for now the expectation is to stay at the top of the league.”
Grant, Bardsley, Shawcross, Martins Indi, Pieters, Arnautovic, Cameron, Allen, Sobhi (Crouch 90), Walters, Berahino (Diouf 61).
Subs not used:
Muniesa, Whelan, Afellay, Adam, Given. Sent Off: Bardsley (90). Booked:
Courtois, Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill, Moses (Fabregas 70), Kante, Matic (Loftus-Cheek 82), Alonso, Willian (Zouma 88), Costa, Pedro.
Subs not used:
Begovic, Ake, Batshuayi, Chalobah.
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